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Mariners Exit Interview 2019: Utility and Futility

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Seattle served up a smorgasbord of stop-gaps in 2019. Some aged better than others.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Taking the first few words of a scouting report to describe a player’s positional versatility tends to be an ominous sign. Despite the occasional Ben Zobrist or José Ramírez, the reality is most utility players are far from super. Seattle nonetheless spent much of the 2019 season filling the field with players who showed up to the park with at least three types of gloves in their bag. It’s not a fait accompli that things will go wretchedly - often-times players are pushed to utility roles prematurely, or due to erroneous senses that their skillset won’t work in a full-time role. Just this season we saw Austin Nola emerge from an eight-year journey through the minors to deliver at least half of a perfectly competent MLB season.

For many, however, the designation of fourth outfielder or utility fill-in is too tough to shake. There is honor in being a skeleton key, but stack a few together and the lineup begins to look a bit bare bones (Ed. Note: booooooooooooooooo. ~John, I don’t need Kate to tell me this is a bad joke). As the winter begins to creak its gears, let’s revisit the good, the bad, and the incredibly ugly fringes of Seattle’s roster.

We Blinked, Where’d You Go?

UTIL Kristopher Negrón

We cannot rule out that Negrón has compromising information on several GMs at this point, as his continued knack for popping onto MLB rosters is downright extraordinary. The 33 year old played just 10 games with the Mariners after agreeing to return on a minor league deal last winter. He inspired plenty of creative jokes with a couple homers in his first few games with the Dodgers after being dealt for cash to L.A. midseason, but injury cut his season short. He’s managed just a 73 wRC+ for his career, but he is the truest utility gloveman on this list, with over 25 innings at every position on the field besides pitcher or catcher.

UTIL Ryan Court

Things didn’t go well for Ryan Court at the big league level, but it’s hard to imagine the season as anything than a massive success. Two months past his 31st birthday, the 2011 23rd rounder made his MLB debut at long last. Despite playing shortstop in the minors for much of his career, and balancing multiple infield and outfield spots in Tacoma this year, Court was predominantly an OF/1B in his first dozen games in the bigs. Still, he had a moment precious few ever achieve, and one he’ll never forget.

Court was DFA’d in September, and returned to Tacoma after clearing waivers. While the details of minor league free agency are always tricky, with eight years of minor league service and not holding a 40-man roster spot, Court should be a minor league free agent again as he was last winter.

OF Mac Williamson

The return of the Mac soon became a deturn, as the musclebound outfielder struggled to present MLB-quality at-bats. Though he clubbed a home run in his first game as a Mariner, things would only decline from there. It was a kindness to put Williamson in the outfield at the point of the season when he arrived, as Mariners pitchers had been seeing an inconsistent array of utility players and Bruce comma Jay cantering through T-Mobile Park, but the team suffered with him at the dish. Soon after he was cut loose in mid-July, Williamson signed a deal with the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization.

C David Freitas

Freitas played a sizable role on the 2018 Mariners, but made just a single appearance before being designated for assignment. His season unfortunately did not improve, as he struggled at the plate with just a single hit in 16 PAs across 16 games with the Brewers, before spending the rest of the season obliterating competition in Milwaukee’s AAA affiliate, the San Antonio Missions. While he may play a bigger role lowering your score on Sporcle quizzes than in Seattle’s future, Freitas’ one start was a big one - the 13-2 demolition of Chris Sale and the World Champion Red Sox on national TV in the home opener.

You Made It! To The End of the Season, I Mean

SS/UTIL Tim Beckham

Speaking of folks who demolished Chris Sale, Tim freaking Beckham.

Seattle’s opening day shortstop gave J.P. Crawford time to work in Tacoma/the Mariners cover to keep Crawford down for service time purposes, and for the first month or so things were going gangbusters. Yes, Beckham was a defensive liability as advertised, but he looked like Omar Vizquel while sharing the left side of the infield with poor Ryon Healy.

Okay, maybe not. But the bat seemed invigorated, and he appeared back at full health following an injury-hampered 2018 season that saw him cast off by even the Baltimore Orioles.

Even as the bat cooled to around league-average, Beckham seemed to have shown he had a big league role. A guy who could handle shortstop in an emergency but had the arm to play every infield spot and at least got some practice faking it in the outfield? Nothing revolutionary, but the type of guy that lengthens a roster and makes teams better. But the story we’ve seen many times before, unfortunately. Working back from a frustrating injury, it seems Beckham used Stanozolol to aid his recovery and/or improve his training.

Seattle would have had a tricky decision on Beckham anyway, as he would be due arbitration salary that might’ve exceeded what they were inclined to pay, but now the decision appears made for them. Though he is on the restricted list through the rest of his suspension, he will likely be cut loose before arbitration to avoid a commitment to future salary.

OF Keon Broxton

Broxton and Williamson share almost an identical archetype, as athletic outfielders with strong draft pedigrees and impressive numbers against minor league pitching. They’re even the same age, with Broxton beating Williamson to 29 by a couple months. Broxton’s edge has been his undeniably excellent glovework, and an above-average center fielder who can steal a base will get shots on big league rosters long after most other types of players. Round number enthusiasts can point to 2017, where Broxton went 20-20, with 20 home runs and 21 stolen bases. Sadly, he’s yet to reach the Mendoza Line since, struck out in over 50% of his plate appearances with Seattle, and saw his hitting numbers crumble from “Okay If You’re Kevin Pillar” to “One of the Better Hitting Pitchers”. If giving you or Steven Matz a bat is a relative coin flip, something is deeply awry. Broxton is a free agent and should tag on somewhere for a minor league deal, but his time in Seattle has likely come to a close.

Ok.... Okay. Okay!

UTIL Tim Lopes

Everyone loves a homecoming story. Despite being five to six years younger than several of his compatriots on this list, Tim Lopes found himself in minor league free agency after the 2018 season. It was a tough rap for Lopes, who had hit respectably in AA and AAA while playing three infield positions and a splash or two in the outfield. Despite debuting six years later than fellow 2012 draftee Mike Zunino, Lopes is the unlikely only remaining member of that draft to have signed (sorry Mike Yastrzemski, Trey Wingenter, and Richie Martin) and made the big leagues but still be in the Mariners organization. Zunino, Edwin Díaz, Patrick Kivlehan, Chris Taylor, and Dominic Leone have had their ups and downs, but they are joined by Lopes in the MLB fold. Not only that, but he made an impact from the start, delivering one of the more fun moments of the year with a first MLB hit to remember.

For his part, the 25 year old Lopes earned his keep. Though he’s been phased out of a shortstop role, Lopes worked both second and third base, and made clear improvements as a corner outfielder, where he got most of his innings. He didn’t set the world on fire at the plate, but his first 128 PAs had him as a capable spray hitter with the ability to take a walk who could likely benefit from a baseball that remains juicy. If he can retain his base-stealing acumen, he can showcase a second gear that most of his competition lacks. It’s likely Lopes is on the outskirts of the Mariners roster going into 2020, but he should be a legitimate contender at the UTIL spot. Somewhere, prospect writer emeritus Ethan Novak is sipping his pumpkin spice latte as the orange leaves fall, and smiling.

UTIL Dylan Moore

The incumbent challenger for the 2020 utility job didn’t decimate the competition as much as outlast it. It’s not all that exciting to have a rookie season where you play over 100 games and don’t scratch 300 PAs, but Moore put both his potential and shortcomings on display in his first big league season.

The good: a .182 ISO and a serious ability to put a charge in the ball makes him more threatening than the average utili-bear. He looked passable at shortstop, and appeared both athletic and instinctive enough for outfield reps. Despite what seemed like an absolute nightmare scenario in his first week in the bigs, he rebounded to be a defensive positive on a club that spent over half the season threatening historically poor glovework.

The bad: You can strike out 33% of the time if you... A. Hit the ball out of the park most of the time you do make contact, B. If you also walk like 15% of the time, and/or C. If you play a premium defensive position at a premier level. Basically if you’re good Mike Zunino, it’s cool. Dylan Moore, while valuable for his versatility, did not hit quite enough to make up for those struggles. It was slightly surprising, considering he’d run sub-20% K-rates at every level of the minors since 2016, but the majors are a different beast. Perhaps Moore was pressing, or made an adjustment that had him selling out for power more egregiously. Whatever the case, he made for a surprising three-true-outcome specialist, walking, striking out, or homering in over 45% of his plate appearances. That can work as a profile, but it either will take a bit more from the glove or the bat to get there. Mooreover, Dylan was caught nine times out of 20 on the basepaths, which just won’t fly, especially in the most dinger-happy era of baseball. Don’t be surprised to see some competition externally for this group next year.